This essay on ancient history has been an exploratory adventure in search of a “deep structure” of ancient cultural and clinical practices that have a bearing on what would today be called speech-language pathology. The focus has been what our ancient predecessors have said about the nature of the body and its breakdowns. It has also reviewed some past ideas about oral rhetoric, communication and its disorders. It has also covered some history on disability so as to provide a social/cultural perspective on how people with disabilities were treated in the past and how those with communication disorders may have experienced their disability. Finally, an examination of the educational and rehabilitative methods has offered a picture of educational and therapeutic methods used at different times in history. Whenever possible, the essay included how different communication problems were diagnosed and treated in ancient times so as to make comparisons between past and present and theories and methods associated with communication disorders. Our focus has been on four different ancient civilizations: Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans.
We have found various theories in these four civilizations to explain the functioning of the body. They included humor theory, ventricular theory and pneuma theory. These theories have been used when accounting for diseases, along with other frameworks such as divine intervention and astrology. Ancient ways of thinking have also led to different remedies for curing or relieving symptoms of disease such botanical remedies, surgery, and bleeding and purging to restore the balance of bodily humors. All of the ancient cultures paid homage to their gods to relieve them of their medical problems.
Also under consideration were ancient theories and practices having to do with rhetoric and oratory. All four civilizations placed tremendous value on oral performance and rhetorical prowess. The Babylonians had in their midst well trained bards who disseminated the cultural stories and history to the population through public performances and family gatherings. The Egyptians had conversational rules that emphasized mutual respect and truthfulness.
The Ancient Greeks spent considerable effort to train male youths in oratory and rhetoric. They saw the training as a civic duty and included rhetoric as one of the main school subjects. The Romans continued the Greek tradition of placing high value on public speaking and, through the theorizing of Cicero and later Quintilian, created a formalized schema for training people in rhetoric.
Those with disabilities in ancient times, like now, were treated differently, depending upon the cultural values and attitudes toward the disabled. The treatments ranged from acceptance and support as was done when the Egyptians provided for the disabled by giving them jobs in temples, to social ostraciation as was done in Rome to the young Claudius, to murder through exposure and throwing people off a cliff as was done by the Spartans when judging the fitness of babies to live, and by Athenians when sacrificing the pharmacoi for the festival of Thargelia.
Education and rehabilitation in ancient civilizations also offered a wide range of options depending upon the culture and, in the case of rehabilitation, the particular problem being remedied. Included in the educational practices were
- memorization exercises, done, for example by Babylonians to train the bards,
- prayers and sacrifices made by the Babylonians and Greeks to the gods who were thought to cause the problems,
- health maintenance practices such as physical exercises, baths, and fresh air to prevent and cure physical sickness
- rhetoric education and rehearsals done by Greeks and Romans to improve oratory skills and create better citizens
- speech exercises involving the tongue and voice done by Greeks such as Demosthenes to remediate speech problems.
A number of people in these ancient times played parts in their civilization’s contributions to medicine, rhetoric, disability, and education. Details of their contributions can be found here.